Pro-Democracy protests in Israel: Are there lessons for India?

India is witnessing a similar assault on its judiciary, but can its citizens resist the government onslaught on our democratic institutions?

Israelis gather in Tel Aviv on 11 March 2023 for the ‘Day of Resistance’ rallies to protest the government plan to introduce judicial changes
Israelis gather in Tel Aviv on 11 March 2023 for the ‘Day of Resistance’ rallies to protest the government plan to introduce judicial changes

Ashok Swain

For the past ten weeks or so, millions of Israelis have been protesting the Benjamin Netanyahu-led government’s attempts to weaken the country’s judiciary. Initially a weekend feature, the protests have in recent weeks spread to working days as well. Israel has rarely witnessed such spirited public protests earlier—the sight of hundreds of thousands of people occupying the streets, week after week, is spectacular, also because the country’s population is barely nine million, less than half of Delhi’s.

In November 2022, Netanyahu was elected the Prime Minister of Israel for the sixth time. The difference this time is that the traditional allies of Netanyahu’s Likud Party refused to join hands with him. Still, he managed to come to power by allying with a group of smaller, highly religious and ultra-nationalist parties that got a majority of 64 seats in the 120-seat Knesset (Israeli Parliament). Netanyahu and his new allies see major gains if they can curtail the judiciary’s power and make the simple majority decisions taken in the Knesset supreme.

The longstanding allegations of corruption are hanging like a sword of Damocles on Netanyahu’s head. Cutting the Supreme Court down to size will help him remain the Prime Minister even if the judiciary gives an adverse verdict. His ultra-nationalist allies are also adamant about bringing judicial change to annex larger areas in the West Bank for new settlements.

The Netanyahu government is keen to not only dilute the rule of law in the country but also to change the existing administrative structure on the West Bank. The aim is to transfer the power of the occupied areas of the West Bank from military authority to civilian administration, which will, in effect, make the annexation of the territory legal. The other plans of the government are to revoke the citizenship of Palestinian citizens and their families if they are convicted of terrorist charges and to carry on collective punishment of Palestinians like home demolitions using bulldozers.

The 15-judge Supreme Court is the highest court of Israel and plays a crucial role in maintaining separation of powers and protecting the country’s democratic values and norms. The judicial review is extremely important for Israeli democracy as Israel is only one out of five countries in the world that doesn’t have a formal constitution. Moreover, Knesset is only a unicameral legislature; it doesn’t have an upper house like many other democracies. Only in Canada a parliamentary majority decision can override Supreme Court’s ruling, but unlike Israel, Canada has at least a constitution.

Netanyahu’s Likud Party has also long complained about Supreme Court judges’ left-wing biases and alleging that they are encroaching into areas of Executive decisions. Overhauling the judicial system proposal also gives the government the power to appoint judges, including judges of the Supreme Court. Most of the Israeli population, including Palestinians, are seriously concerned about the future of Israeli democracy if Netanyahu and his allies successfully push through with their plan to change the judicial system.

Though Left-Wing and liberal Israelis are leading the ongoing protests, some right-wing parties, religious outfits, former army, and police officers are participating. A small number of Palestinians are joining the protests, and the Palestinian community is keeping a low profile. The reason behind it might be strategic so as not to give any opportunity to the Netanyahu government to divert from the main issue and create a broader platform that can attract moderate and centrist Israelis to join the protest. This strategy has also encouraged some illegal Israeli settlements to join the protests.

Former Prime Ministers, former ministers, and retired generals of Israel have also joined the protests. The opposition to the Netanyahu government’s planned judicial overhaul is not limited to street protests. Many reservist fighter pilots, military doctors, and soldiers have raised their voice against planned judicial reform and have refused to join their training. Israeli national airlines also found it difficult to find pilots and crew willing to fly Netanyahu and his wife to Italy on an official visit. Even a Jewish interpreter in Italy refused to do the translation for Netanyahu during his visit to the country.

Israel’s President, the politically neutral figurehead of the country, has also warned that the country is on the verge of constitutional and social collapse. The US President, Joe Biden, has openly criticised Netanyahu’s judicial reform plan. Another rarity is that the umbrella organisation for the diaspora groups, the influential Jewish Federation of North America, has sent an open letter to Netanyahu opposing the proposed change.

The widespread, unprecedented protest is yet to force Netanyahu’s change of mind. His son has called protesters terrorists and wants them to be jailed. Netanyahu has accused protesters of “trampling democracy” and even hinted that foreign hands support the protests.

His justice minister has accused opponents, including the Supreme Court’s Chief Justice, of trying to “carry out a coup.” Despite the bravado, there is every likelihood that Netanyahu will be forced to take back the proposals for overhauling the judicial system of the country. The protest has been going on for far too long, has remained too strong and widespread for him to ignore the resounding chorus of criticism.

Democracy in Israel will survive though it is passing through a very rough patch. The question is whether India will be that lucky. The Narendra Modi government has already begun its assault on India’s Supreme Court, even though India’s Supreme Court has been half as active as its Israeli counterpart in curbing executive overreach.

India’s Vice President and law minister are openly and repeatedly criticising the Supreme Court and advocating the government to adopt the same Netanyahu formula of ‘Parliament is Supreme’ for India.

Sooner than later, India will face this serious attack on its struggling democracy. Unfortunately, the present state of India’s civil society and key institutions like the judiciary and police forces does not give much hope for an Israel-type protest to emerge and become successful in protecting the supremacy of the Constitution.

ASHOK SWAIN is Professor of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University, Sweden

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